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CHAOS(director/writer: Coline Serreau; cinematographer: Jean-François Robin; editor: Catherine Renault; music: Ludovic Navarre; cast: Catherine Frot (Hélène), Vincent Lindon (Paul), Rachida Brakni (Noémie/Malika), Line Renaud (Granny), Aurélien Wiik (Fabrice), Ivan Franek (Touki), Jean-Marc Stehlé (Blanchet), Wojciech Pszoniak (Pali), Chloe Lambert (Florence), Marie Denarnaud (Charlotte), Michel Lagueyrie (Inspector Marsat), Hajar Nouma (Zora); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alain Sarde; New Yorker Films; 2001-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Never escapes its awkwardness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Coline Serreau is the writer-director of this loopy French satirical comedy melodrama, which combines the theme of the battle-of-the-sexes as both a comedy and a crime thriller but never escapes its awkwardness.

Serreau opted to shoot Chaos using digital video, to good effect.

A Parisian bourgeois couple, Paul and Hélène Vidal (Vincent Lindon and Catherine Frot), are driving to an evening dinner-party when a young Algerian hooker is being chased by three thugs and knocks on their window crying out for help. In response Paul locks the doors and refuses to cell phone the police, and the woman is severely beaten into an unconscious state. The only response Paul has is that there’s blood over the car and it’s only a hooker, no reason to get involved. Feeling guilty, Hélène tracks down the hospital where the girl is in intensive care, temporarily paralyses and unable to talk. Since the hospital staff is indifferent, Hélène nurses the girl back to health and finds out her name is Noémie (Rachida Brakni). Hélène realizes she can’t return to her selfish men, workaholic businessman husband and two-timing engaged university student son (Wiik), after this incident and decides to stay overnight in the hospital, as she becomes obsessed with helping Noémie recover. When the same attacking pimps visit the hospital and threaten Noémie she’s there to thwart them, and even knocks one cold and has the police arrest him. Later one of the older leaders of the vicious crime gang, Pali (Wojtek Pszoniak), poses as the victim’s uncle and almost kidnaps her until Hélène intervenes. Frustrated by the hospital’s lack of concern, Hélène kidnaps Noémie for her own protection and takes her to stay in her mother-in-law’s (Line Renaud) country house to recover. When Eventually Noémie is well enough to tell her painful story, that she was brought to France from Algeria by her philandering father who abandoned her mother for another woman, Hélène’s heart goes out to her even further. She learns that her real name is Malika and she ran away at 16 from a forced marriage to an elderly Algerian businessman arranged by her heartless father and how when she was homeless, living on the streets, a pimp named Touki (Ivan Franek) tricked her into becoming a prostitute and turned her over to a cruel crime gang that kept her as a sex slave hooked on smack. Malika also tells how she outwitted the gang over a wealthy client (Stehlé) she seduced who was dying and used the money from his Swiss bank account so that she can save her younger sister Zora, still living with her father and stepmother from going through the same hell she went through.

There are many subplots introduced, and all redundantly showing how beastly men are and a cursory look at the horrible aspects of the Muslim patriarchal society–where the men are not interested in changing the system as much as they are in using it to get material things and keep their women subservient. It builds to where Hélène and Malika combine forces to get revenge on all the nasty men in their lives.

All the characters were so cold and hardly seemed human that I found it difficult to take it seriously and found the comedy too stilted to make me laugh and the satire too hackneyed to have any bite. From the moment Malika starts talking and explaining all the confusion in her life, the banality of the drama becomes apparent and the legitimate message of the victimization of women fails to resonate with everything so piled on in such a ridiculous way. The comedy and the dark political side to the narrative never jelled into a whole movie, and what we were left with was a feminist fable or more correctly one rip roaring mess leading to a senselessly derived feel-good comeuppance ending. The film also lost any high moral ground it thought it was standing on after Malika’s unrepentant fleecing of her John, even though she was cruelly treated by all the men in her life she scores no points by showing as soon as she gets the upper hand she can be just as cruel-hearted.

The film was nominated for five Césars, but only Brakni won for Best Actress.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”